Black Milk : A Case Study


April 21, 2016

Black Milk Adventure Time Line

Fandom. Nerdism. Cosplay. When these formerly niche terms entered the popular lexicon, an entirely new strata of consumers emerged. Ones that were as shrewd as they were tech-savvy; as fanatical as they were imaginative. And ones who comprised a market ripe for exploration.

Enter Black Milk

Black Milk began in 2009 as the brainchild of owner James Lillis, a self-taught fashion designer operating out of his kitchen studio in Brisbane, Australia. Now a multi-million dollar brand name with global distribution and production centers and over 200 employees, the retailer—known for evocative and edgy designs that are both trendy, alternative and yes, pop-culture referential—has developed one of the most highly sought after and obsessive followings imaginable in the retail industry; so much so that the appellate of “Sharkie” has developed among their cult of followers to describe themselves. All without advertising, and all thanks to the ubiquity of social media and their own website.

Black Milk Princesses & Villains Line

Obsession and Social Media

Black Milk represents a classic example of how the dominance of social media drives the life cycle and development of brand identity. The company initially emerged from Lillis’ own blog, Too Many Tights, and soon blossomed into a multi-site presence which enjoys over 2 million followers. By embracing the still evolving medium, Black Milk draws upon its immediacy and fanaticism to develop a reputation which is both organic and reflective, referencing the iconography of pop culture monoliths such as Star Wars, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones with a fluency that is both fun, self-knowing and dynamic.

What separates Black Milk, however, is their interaction with their fan base. Unlike brands who have enjoyed traditional advertising and marketing platforms, a social media-driven brand needs to develop a staunchly democratic voice, a reflection as much of the desires of its followers as it is of its own unique position. To this end, the company’s interaction with fans, whether through personal responses to the 80-odd Facebook groups devoted to the Black Milk phenomenon or the development of international conventions known as “SharkieCons”, is nothing short of remarkable. It represents a grass roots effort to sustain a community that is driven by fans more than by advertising; or in Lillis’ own words, “cultivating friendships” instead of sales.

Black Milk

Boldly going where no other brand has gone before

The origins of Black Milk seem almost apocryphal; Lillis pawning a CD player to purchase a sewing machine purely on a whim, and selling his first pair of leggings for $10 (the average cost is now roughly $64.) True or not, the saturation of “geek chic” in 2009 was nowhere at the level it currently is (these were the days of MySpace, after all.) Developing a brand name with a distinctly fandom-oriented focus was unquestionably a risky gamble; at best, it would be likely to fill a niche and draw a miniscule profit (Lillis is notoriously tight-lipped about sales revenue.) And in 2015?

Fan conventions regularly draw over 35,000 attendees per event, often traveling to multiple cities to attend. The influence of Cosplay and Anime styles has been noted among such cultural icons as Katy Perry. Shows such as Game of Thrones have now become dominant turning points of discussion among the vast majority of Americans.

In an industry now too diverse to be characterized by one description, is it still easy to refer to fandom as a mere niche?

Authenticity and the End Result

As mentioned earlier, Black Milk is as much a product of their fans’ fertile imaginations as it is a success story. Its appeal isn’t solely due to changes in market demographics, but in appealing to the enthusiasm and direct engagement with its devotees. It’s a model that demands both consistent monitoring and consistent outreach; but above all, it demands direct insight. It demands adaptability. And it demands authenticity.

Black Milk Princesses and Villains

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